When The Council originally came out, it offered a very unique world filled with intrigue, mystery and even historical figures like George Washington and Napoleon. Set on a mysterious and in some ways impossible island, the plot was that the most powerful people in the world get together there every few years to decide how world events will play out, as they are doing when the game begins in 1793. The gathering is always lead by the even more mysterious Lord Mortimer, who at least based on some of the surface evidence you collect in episode one, might be immortal, or perhaps alien, or maybe even a devil. We were quite pleased with the experience in our review of The Council, Episode One.
You play a young Frenchman named Louis de Richet, who works with his elderly mother solving crimes and cases in a sort of 1700’s version of the X-Files. But this is done by a secret society led by your mother, which is powerful enough in shaping world events to earn your mom a seat at that gathering. The problem is that she has gone missing on the island, and Mortimer has asked you to try and find her, or to take her place at the gathering if she remains missing.
The first episode featured a great mix of storytelling, plot advancement and light puzzle solving. Puzzles were of the kind that are intuitive, requiring things like sneaking into a guest’s room and reading their letters, and then using that information to manipulate them later. I was thinking that The Council would thus be a perfect game for those who like narrative adventures, or perhaps even for more casual gamers.
Unfortunately, episode two severely bent the perception that anyone could play and enjoy The Council, while episode three broke it in pieces. That is not to say that those episodes are not good. But they are aimed squarely at puzzle gamers who enjoy nearly impossible cerebral challenges and not so much to those of us who play games for atmosphere or story. The story is still present and still quite good, but players who are not expert puzzle solvers will likely feel that at least some of the puzzles in episodes two and three are more like roadblocks to future adventures rather than a part of the fun.
Episode two begins with the real start to your missing mother investigation, with Mortimer directing you to a storage room where your mother had been seen. Once there, players are faced with their first demanding puzzle, though the difficulty does not ramp up too high just yet. The puzzle in that room involves reading Bible verses from a giant tome and then relating them to various portraits hanging in the room (on this island, even the storage rooms are opulent and elegant apparently) as well as noticing things like marks in the dust or cryptic messages hidden all around. All of that provides players with numbers that tell them what chapter and verse to look up in the Bible to continue the clue chain. It’s kind of tedious, but solvable with some work.
There are also some good character interactions, and you will need to the skills that you hopefully leveled up in the previous chapter, things like politics, manipulation, questioning, occult lore and others to make a good showing for yourself. If you are extremely clever in that regard, you might start to learn some of the secrets of the island, or at least a few theories from the other characters.
There is another major puzzle that involves finding a correct date to open a numeric lock on a door, and as before you will need to cross reference different sources, basically books in the game, as you research historic dates. You will even need to cross reference the Masonic calendar versus the Gregorian one as they have vastly different numbering schemes. This puzzle again ramps up the difficulty, but is still in the realm of the possible.
All of those secrets leads to what I consider one of the most enjoyable parts of the game so far, a bonafide hedge maze challenge. Not only do you need to find your way through the maze, but also get to examine historical and mythical figures represented by statues scattered throughout. The statues are all part of a grand puzzle that is really good. Every statue involves the legend of the minotaur (great for a maze theme) and their clues will help you decide which statue to thrust a spear into to unlock a final door at the center of the labyrinth. And what a sense of achievement to be had when you finally solve that one.
For me however, that is kind of where The Council went downhill. Moving into episode three territory, you are tasked with a bunch of FedEx quests, retreading on previous ground like picking up that Bible from the storage room puzzle or some nails that supposedly were used to pin Jesus to the cross from the room behind the number puzzle. Yes, there is good characterization too, including an intense scene with the woman who I consider to be the most interesting character in the whole game (not your mother, who is fairly one dimensional actually). I won’t detail the specific encounter I am talking about because it would be a huge spoiler. But despite a few cool moments, episode three just seemed like filler material. It was okay, but nothing like episode one or to a lesser extent the second chapter.
Episode three ends with what I think is probably one of the most difficult puzzles that I’ve experienced in computer gaming. It involves lots of cross-referencing once again (perhaps Big Bad Wolf programmers used to work in a grand library or something) with conflicting accounts in the life of Jesus. Somehow you are supposed to figure out what theme a giant puzzle wheel is trying to show and place nails in spots to represent a city, a date and a phase of the moon.
Honestly, the puzzles in something like Riven or the Seventh Guest were more interesting and less difficult, and they were pure puzzle games. The Council’s book and math puzzles are about as fun as taking an SAT test. A few people might enjoy it, but the vast majority of gamers will be put off by them. For The Council’s final episode three puzzle, I turned to YouTube to get the solution, something I detest doing. But when games cross the line from being fun to being a chore, I look for the bailout lever.
I’m not saying that The Council is not a good game. It is. But positioning it as an adventure or mystery title is misleading, at least by the standards of episodes two and especially three. Based on those episodes, it’s more of a pure puzzle title with a narrative wrapping, and an extremely difficult one at that. My hope is that the final two episodes will get back to the excellent balance we found in the first chapter, and that episode three was just a huge hump that we had to get over. Perhaps four and five will be a nice slide into home as we finally unravel the final parts of the mystery island and the interesting characters visiting there.